Stumbling on Happiness: Why You’re Less Likely to Be Happy in the Future Than You Think

rosieDaniel Gilbert’s new book Stumbling on Happiness is a great summer read — you can polish it off in an afternoon or two and it will make you think about — and question — what you want to do with the rest of your life.

The book is about why the future we imagine, plan for and work towards ends up so often being both very different from and less satisfying than we expected. This is due in part to not knowing ourselves, and how we are changing, and not knowing what makes us happy and will make us happy:

Some people…tell you sternly that you should live every minute of your life as though it were your last, which only goes to show some people would spend their final ten minutes giving other people dumb advice…We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy…Why [then] do they [our future selves] experience regret and relief when they think about us, rather than pride and appreciation…when we gave them the best years of our lives?…Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs and desires of the people we will be next year?

Gilbert explains why we have the propensity to imagine the future (such thoughts take up about 12% of all out thinking). “Why can’t we just be here now?”, he asks. His answer: “Thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there”. It has practical value, too. Anticipation can mitigate the impact of unpleasant events, and imagining them can motivate us to try to avoid them. We have an innate desire to control our futures, and become unhappy and hopeless when we feel we have lost that ability. But we are terrible at imagining our future, and the happiness it will (or won’t) bring us, because of what Gilbert calls illusions of foresight.

Most of the book is devoted to describing these illusions, which fall into three categories:

  • The illusions of realism: “Imagination works so quickly, quietly and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.” We idealize the future. We conjure up perfect stereotypes of behaviours and events. We omit details of the future in our future imaginings that will powerfully affect how we will feel. We fail to imagine what won’t happen. We make compound errors both of ‘filling in’ and ‘leaving out’ in our imagined vision of our future selves and future lives. As a result, what we plan and strive for is unreal, a complete fiction. And when we get there, we are bound to be disappointed.
  • The illusions of presentism: “Imagination’s products are…well, not particularly imaginative, which is why the imagined future often looks so much like the actual present”. We tend to project the future, and not anticipate or allow for discontinuities. We are rooted in the present, and can’t imagine things (like a post-civilization world without oil) that are very different from the way they are now. And what we love (or loathe) now can diminish through habituation. The future will not be a projection of the present “only more so”, so our plans based on imagining such a future are bound to be inappropriate, even useless.
  • The illusions of rationalization: “Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we get there. If we have trouble foreseeing future events, then we have even more trouble foreseeing how we will see them when they happen”. The ‘future you’ will be different from the ‘present you’, and the job, or love, you dreamed about will likely turn out not to be what the ‘future you’ really wants at all. We are much more resilient than we think, and possess what Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” which “cooks the facts” (shades of Lakoff) and provides us with comforting illusions about ourselves and our situation. We see ourselves more positively than objectively, and while we do most things subconsciously, we positively rationalize ‘conscious’ reasons for what we do, and don’t do, in order to make ourselves feel better, and more ‘in control’. We regret inactions more than actions. And illogically we view situations that we perceive as inevitable more positively than very similar situations over which we have some choice.

So what can we do about this? How can we ‘see our future’ and anticipate how we will feel about it more accurately?

Gilbert examines and discards several alternatives, including practicing imagining (just retrenches the illusions) and asking others for opinion or coaching (they just reinforce the same myths that cloud our own imaginations). Instead, he advocates finding ‘surrogates’ — people who are now in a situation similar to the one you think you might be in in the future, and asking yourself if you would be happy if you’d done what they did and were doing what they’re doing. Less imagination, and more research. This entails learning more about what the future will probably be like when you get there, so that you have a richer context for understanding what your life might be like, and then searching for people who have already made a similar journey — people whose present is as much as possible like what your future, as objectively as you can imagine, will be like. Then study them, and learn about your future self. In other words, get real.

Gilbert does an interesting job dissecting the argument that we’re all unique, and that no surrogate could possibly teach us about our future or how happy we will be in it. Buy the book to read this, and just for the fun of reading this ‘anti-self-help book’.

In the afterword, Gilbert suggests the ideas in this book have particular application in making the three most important decisions about our future that we make in our lives: Where to live, What to do, and Who to do it with. I suspect his next book will tackle these issues specifically. I hope it will tell us how to go about finding these ‘surrogates’.

So now we have three ‘finding people’ challenges. Finding who to live with, and who to make a living with, two subjects I’ve written a lot about on this blog. And now, who to learn about the ‘future you’ from. Ideally, since the third one has a substantial impact on the first two, we should probably start with it. So much of what I’m learning these days keeps coming back tofinding models to learn from.

Time to go visit some intentional communities, and talk to some people there who are about ten years older and wiser than I am.

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5 Responses to Stumbling on Happiness: Why You’re Less Likely to Be Happy in the Future Than You Think

  1. spy for sanity says:

    why do i feel like that post was a sort of homework assignment? luckily, i’m not averse to (more) homework. best wishes in your search :) kf

  2. I was lucky enough to see Daniel Gilbert’s presentation at SXSW this year. It’s another of the few fantastic PPT/presenter combos out there, and the perfect mix of science and fun, making this (important) information both accessible and compelling.I snagged a free copy of the book but hadn’t gotten a chance to read it yet. On your reco, I’m digging it up and getting to it. Thanks, Dave!

  3. Daniel says:

    for where to live this can be ineresting

  4. dave davison says:

    dave — check this review on Intentional Communities = The Extreme Makeover, Commune Edition-

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